Category: King County

Morning Fizz: Smoke Shelter Closes, HSD Apologizes, and City Ditches Gold-Plated Shower Vendor

Today’s Morning Fizz:

1. The onset of hazardous air quality conditions led King County to open up a little-known site in SoDo this week—not as a full-time homeless shelter, but as a temporary smoke shelter serving about 100 people. But demand was greater: The shelter, located inside a former Tesla dealership the county is leasing from developer Greg Smith, had to stop taking referrals on Monday, citing lack of staff to expand the site to its full capacity of around 300 beds. The shelter will close today and remain on call as a potential isolation and quarantine site should hospitals become overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases in the future.

According to King County Department of Community and Human Services director Leo Flor, staffing is a significant bottleneck at every current shelter, making it hard to increase the number of beds available even when there is plenty of room, as is the case at the massive former showroom in SoDo.

“Staffing has been one of the critical constraints on this system since February,” Flor said. One reason it’s hard for agencies to staff up to expand shelter capacity right now, Flor added, is that the federal money that pays for COVID-specific shelters is temporary—people would rather have jobs with some guaranteed longevity than a three-month gig that could be extended to six.

But the county’s conservative approach to COVID plays a role, too. The SoDo site was originally designed as an isolation and quarantine site (with HVAC and filtration systems that help prevent disease transmission as well as smoke inhalation) and could still be used for that purpose. So could a similar facility in Bellevue, which remained empty this week as smoke settled over the region. “We need a system that can flex, if we start to see increases in the prevalence of the virus, [to accommodate] that can’t be housed in their own homes,” DCHS housing and community development division director Mark Ellerbrook said.

The long-term purpose of the SoDo site is unknown, although the county has reportedly been working on plans to convert it to enhanced 24/7 shelter.

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2. The social media manager for the Seattle Human Services Department (whose name I am not printing, since he is not a public figure) was reprimanded and relieved of his Twitter and Facebook duties after posting a series of sarcastic, borderline hostile responses to people raising questions about the city’s response to homelessness.

For example, in response to someone who said the city should house people instead of relying on temporary shelters, @SeattleHSD responded that it was “reckless and irresponsible” of them to suggest that simply moving every single unsheltered person into an apartment would solve the problem” of homelessness.

When someone tweeting asked a question about the terminology HSD uses to refer to people experiencing homelessness, @SeattleHSD responded, “Unfortunately, there are people on Twitter and in the media who like to complain and spin misinformation when what we say to the public doesn’t match exactly with internal data or communications even when it is just making these kinds of distinctions.”

And when several people questioned the city’s relationship with the historically anti-LGBTQ Salvation Army, @SeattleHSD responded defensively, implying that the tweeters did not understand how shelter contracts work and snapping at one, “If you are aware of a local organization with trained staff that is prepared to operate a new 24/7 shelter, please go right ahead and share that information with us.”

This is the second time in less than four months that the HSD staffer behind the account has lashed out at critics. In late May, after a controversial homeless encampment removal, the staffer spent the better part of a day scrapping with random people who opposed the sweep, often dismissing criticism with sarcastic and heated language.

On Thursday afternoon, the Human Services Department tweeted out an apology for the “content/language/tone” of the tweets. The person who posted the apology tweet closed the replies, eliminating the public’s ability to comment directly (if not indirectly) on the outburst.

3. As we noted in Fizz on Tuesday, the city just ditched its high-cost mobile shower vendor, VIP Restrooms, for three new contracts —two with United Site Services, for two shower trailers at King Street Station and the Green Lake Community Center, and one with OK’s Cascade Company, for a trailer at Seattle Center.

While difficult to compare directly because different things are included in each contract (for example, two of the trailers don’t require daily pumpout services because they’re connected directly to the city’s sewer system), the two new contracts are both less expensive than VIP, which charged the city ultra-high prices when mobile showers were in high demand at the beginning of the pandemic.

According to Seattle Public Utilities, the United trailers—not counting pumpouts, staffing, and materials such as towels and toilet paper, which add significant costs to the flat rental fee—will cost between $6,000 and $7,000 a month, and the OK’s trailers (with all the same caveats) will cost just over $16,000. Altogether, the three contracts are providing 15 shower stalls. VIP’s bid to continue its existing contract was a little over $19,000 a month. For comparison, in March, as I reported, the city put nearly $30,000 on a credit card to rent two three-stall VIP trailers for just one week.

As a procurement agent for the city noted drily on the letter transmitting the United contract, “At the start of the COVID-19 emergency, we were only able to find shower trailers from VIP Restrooms due to high demand and short supply. The demand/supply issue still exists but we were able to obtain quotes from two other suppliers that offer the trailers at a lower price.”

King County Executive Highlights Criminal Justice Reform in Budget Preview

By Paul Kiefer

On Wednesday afternoon, King County Executive Dow Constantine previewed a number of new programs he will propose as part of his 2021-2022 county budget plan next week, including alternatives to jail, community-based public safety alternatives, and divestments from the current criminal legal system. “We took up a simple refrain to guide our budget: divest, invest, and reimagine,” Constantine said. “As we support community members in co-creating our shared future, we make an important down payment on building a strong, equitable, and racially just county.”

Toward that end, Constantine proposed spending $6.2 million over the next two years on a new program called Restorative Community Pathways. According to Department of Public Defense Director Anita Khandelwal, the program would refer 800 juvenile offenders away from the criminal justice system per year and instead provide “community-based support, mentorship, and targeted interventions.”

Those services would be provided largely by the three nonprofits involved in the program’s development: Community Passageways, Creative Justice, and Choose 180, which also all contract with the City of Seattle for violence prevention or youth diversion programs. The initial $6.2 million investment would also fund support for victims of crimes and a new “restitution fund,” which would cover court-mandated fines and financial obligations for juvenile offenders who can’t afford them.

According to a press release from Constantine’s office, the county hopes to get the program off the ground by 2022, and “eventually” fund it entirely through cost savings from the King County Superior Court, the Department of Public Defense, and the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

Constantine’s budget proposal also includes $2.7 million for restorative justice services for adults facing their first criminal charges for nonviolent crimes. According to King County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Casey McNerthey, the program would primarily serve those charged with property or low-level drug crimes, but could also include other nonviolent offenders. The adult program would rely on the same three nonprofit partners responsible for Restorative Community Pathways.

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After the press conference, Community Passageways CEO Dominique Davis told PubliCola that his group would assume responsibility for felony diversion, while Creative Justice would manage other elements of both restorative justice programs. Community Passageways doesn’t take referrals for anyone older than 27, but if the county decided to expand the program to serve people over 27, Davis is hopeful that other nonprofits could pitch in. “If in the first year we actually save the city and the county a lot of money [in court and incarceration costs], then we could tap groups like LEAD that already work with older adults,” Davis said. “We really don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

The proposed restorative justice programs would work in tandem with Constantine’s vision of a $1.9 million decrease spending on the the county jail. “With fewer people in jail,” Constantine said, “we will be able, in this biennium, to close one of the [12] floors of the downtown jail.” Since the beginning of the year, the county has already reduced the jail’s daily population from 1,900 to 1,300, and Constantine said he intends to continue that downward trend and increase the county’s savings in future years.

Constantine also proposed transferring $4.6 million of the county’s marijuana tax revenues from the sheriff’s office to three new programs: one helping those with past marijuana convictions clear their records and settle unpaid court fines and restitution; a “youth marijuana prevention” and employment program run by the county’s Department of Local Services in unincorporated King County; and a “community-centered advisory body” that would determine how the county spends marijuana tax revenue in the future.

The county also plans to suspend fare enforcement on King County Metro buses, even as they reinstate fares in October, and reassess the county’s $4.7 million fare enforcement contract with the private company Securitas. Interim Metro general manager Terry White added that when fare enforcement resumes in 2021, Metro will “use non-fine alternative approaches” for those who can’t afford to pay fare, ranging from community service to providing connections to social service agencies.

Constantine will present his budget to the King County Council, which has final say over most aspects of the proposal, on September 22.

Modular Men’s Shelter, Announced in May, Delayed Four Months by Fire Concerns

By Erica C. Barnett

Back in May, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan invited reporters on a tour of a new facility that would provide safe, non-congregate shelter in modular buildings to as many as 50 homeless men over 55—clients who had previously stayed at Catholic Community Services’ St. Martin de Porres Shelter, which was closed down during the early days of the COVID-19 epidemic.

The new modular shelter, located on a piece of county-owned land along Elliott Ave. West in Interbay, was designed to inhibit the spread of the virus, with high-walled individual cubicles set inside modular trailer units with fans and cross-ventilation, a large kitchen for prepared meal delivery, and 10 single-stall restrooms for the men. 

More than four months later, the shelter still hasn’t opened. According to King County Housing & Community Development division director Mark Ellerbrook, the Seattle Fire Department raised a number of issues that the county had to address before the city would sign off on its permits, including physical components of the trailer-style buildings that had to be replaced. “This is a new type of shelter with a new type of facility—these modular components that haven’t been used in this way, for this purpose,” Ellerbrook said.

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Leo Flor, the director of the county Department of Community and Human Services, told PubliCola, “From our perspective, anything that’s [related to] fire safety is a significant issue, especially when we’re going to have 40 people in one place.” However, he added, “certainly we did not plan on this amount of time to complete the permitting process.”

Neither the county nor the fire department would provide specific details about what fire safety issues have kept the site in mothballs since May. SFD spokeswoman Kirsten Tinsley said that “during an initial inspection of the site, the [Fire Prevention Division] identified a number of fire code issues that needed to be addressed prior to opening; the main issues have since been addressed by the site managers.”

The shelter reportedly was not supposed to open until next week, but the ongoing wildfire smoke emergency apparently pushed up the opening date; according to Ellerbrook, the men—who have been scattered to various location across the city—could begin moving to the site as soon as tomorrow.

A few outstanding issues still remain, but none apparently serious enough to keep the county from opening the shelter this week.

I’ve asked the county and fire department for more details about the specific fire-safety issues SFD identified as well as any additional costs associated with the upgrades and delay.

This story is developing, and will be updated with additional details when they become available.

Girmay Zahilay: In November, a Chance to Begin Rebuilding Public Safety from the Ground Up

By Girmay Zahilay

On the evening of November 5, 2019, I stood in front of a packed room at Rumba Notes Lounge in Columbia City and delivered my victory speech. I had just been elected to the King County Council and I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I told the audience of family and friends that “we did not come here to start a movement, we came here to build on the work of those that came before us.”

As I spoke those words, I thought of all of the struggling, organizing, and advocating that prior generations had done for our benefit. I saw black and white images of people marching for Civil Rights; I saw Black students being attacked with fire hoses while protesting; I saw Native Americans fighting for their land and sovereignty.

The work of those that came before us weighed on me so heavily that my voice cracked during my speech. How could we ever live up to what our past heroes had accomplished? They had endured once-in-a-generation battles and fundamentally changed society for the better.

Back in November 2019, I could have never imagined that just months later our nation would enter its own once-in-a-generation battle. I had spent my entire campaign talking about affordable housing, zoning policies, and criminal justice reform. But the trials and tribulations of 2020 have made so much more possible than the usual reform-style policies. This year, we have a powerful opportunity to fundamentally improve our society. We have the political will to rebuild our institutions from the ground up and better serve the most vulnerable in our region.

This November, King County has the rare opportunity to begin shaping a fundamentally better system of public safety—one that is rooted in public health initiatives, community-based alternatives, and economic justice for marginalized communities.

Among these powerful opportunities is the chance to transform our vision for public safety. For King County residents, this starts with adopting Charter Amendment 6 in November. This amendment will empower the King County Council to transfer certain public safety functions, such as crisis response, away from the Sheriff’s Office and into the hands of the community organizations that should have been in charge of responding to community needs all along.

The murder of George Floyd highlighted what Black organizers and advocates had been saying and working on for decades: our systems of policing are racist, unresponsive to root causes of crime, and frequently introduce lethal force to situations that do not warrant it.

Here in King County, the police killings of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, Tommy Le, Charleena Lyles, and many others, were preventable. We could have saved their lives and we can save countless others moving forward. We can better serve our neighbors who have been most harmed by state action. We can put people on track to get the support they need. We can accomplish these goals not by reforming the institutions we already have, but by reimagining public safety altogether.

This November, King County has the rare opportunity to begin shaping a fundamentally better system of public safety—one that is rooted in public health initiatives, community-based alternatives, and economic justice for marginalized communities. In addition to empowering community-based organizations, it would give the groups that are already working to keep their neighborhoods safe the resources that they need to do so on a bigger scale.

Our default response to every challenge in our region should not be to deploy officers armed with guns. The future of public safety looks like a diverse toolkit of effective public health solutions. Mental health support teams can respond to mental health crises, rapid response social workers can tend to people in need, and trusted mentors and violence interrupters can help our youth. Unarmed code enforcement professionals can address noise complaints and traffic infractions.

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If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

As our laws stand, however, the King County Council does not have the authority to transfer public safety functions away from traditional law enforcement. Our King County Charter, the local constitution governing our region, says that the King County Sheriff’s Office “shall not have its duties decreased by the county council.” This prohibition, combined with the fact that our King County Sheriff is an independently elected position, insulates the Sheriff’s Office from external policy instruction.

Rising to the promise of this moment requires us to amend the King County Charter and remove the restrictive language that ties the Council’s hands. When King County residents open their ballots this November, they will choose to approve or reject “Charter Amendment No. 6”, which if approved, would give the King County Council the authority to change the duties and structure of our regional system of public safety.

A more effective and equitable approach to safety is around the corner with Charter Amendment Number 6 as step one.

This potential change is one I would have never thought possible last year at my election night party. But in 2020, we have entered an unprecedented battle, and it has brought with it an unprecedented opportunity. Policymakers should use this momentum to go beyond surface level reforms and rebuild our systems from the ground up.

Our federal, state, and local governments have a long history of devastating Black, Indigenous, and communities of color. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that our fates as human beings are intertwined. If one group is especially vulnerable to the virus, we will all be less safe. The same holds true for the racist impact of our criminal legal systems. If Black and Brown people continue to be over-policed, criminalized, and incarcerated, with divesting longterm social and economic consequences, we will all be less safe.

Let’s rise to meet this moment. Let’s rebuild our systems to better serve the people we have most harmed, and let’s ensure safety, prosperity, and justice for all.

Girmay Zahilay is a King County Council council member representing District 2, which includes central and southeast Seattle.

In Reversal, City and County Will Open Smoke Shelter in SoDo

Image by Matt Howard via Upsplash.

By Erica C. Barnett

In a reversal of their previous policy, the city of Seattle and King County now plan to open one temporary shelter for people living outdoors to escape from a “super massive” plume of wildfire smoke expected to roll in starting Friday, The C Is for Crank has learned. The shelter will be at a large warehouse in SoDo and will provide protection for up to 77 people.

UPDATE: Officials from the county and city officially announced the shelter this morning. “The building is large enough to create substantial physical distancing inside,” county executive Dow Constantine said. In fact, the building is so large that it could hold up to 300 people. The shelter, which will be open until at least Monday, will be operated by the Salvation Army with assistance from the county’s public health reserve corps.

According to the latest Point In Time count of the county’s homeless population, there were at least 5,500 people living unsheltered in King County last January.

Earlier this week, a spokeswoman from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said that the city, following guidance from Seattle/King County Public Health, did not plan at that time to open any new indoor spaces for people experiencing homelessness in response to unhealthy air conditions because the risk of COVID-19 transmission in congregate settings outweighed the health risks posed by prolonged smoke exposure. The spokeswoman, Kamaria Hightower, said that “should Public Health – Seattle & King County recommend that the benefits of establishing congregate healthy air centers outweigh the health risks of COVID-19 based on the severity of the forecast,” the city has “access to a range of facilities.”

The city has not opened cooling centers this summer, arguing that the risk of COVID transmission outweighed the risk from high temperatures. Although advocates—and several city council members—have sought to move homeless people into hotel and motel rooms for the duration of the epidemic, the mayor has resisted such proposals. The city has contributed funding for a hotel in Renton that is being used as a long-term shelter through a contract with the county. On Friday, Durkan said the city was considering all options, but that hotels presented special challenges, such as the need to provide staffing for people in individual rooms.

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The city and county have been cautious about opening smoke shelters. As recently as Thursday morning, King County Public Health spokesman Doug Williams said the county would not recommend opening new emergency shelters specifically to provide protection from wildfire smoke. “The spaces that exist in Seattle with proper air ventilation/filtration”—five sites outfitted last year specifically to serve as smoke shelters— “are currently being used as distancing shelters for the homeless population,” Williams said.

This is only partly true—two of five such spaces, Fisher Pavilion and Exhibition Hall (both at Seattle Center) are being used for this purpose. One, the Seattle Center Armory, is partly open for business and is not serving as shelter, and the two remaining sites, Rainier Beach Community Center and the International District/Chinatown Community Center, are not being used as shelter. And the county and city have not previously disclosed their ongoing work to develop the SoDo site as emergency shelter.

At Friday’s press conference, Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson said the city had discussed opening the Armory as a smoke shelter but that Seattle Center did “not have the staffing level to open that facility to a large number of individuals, nor did the provider comm unity have the capacity to help staff that facility.”

“The CDC has issued guidance against congregate cooling centers because of the increased risk of COVID transmission,” Williams continued. The CDC recommends that congregate cooling shelters include information about preventing COVID transmission, and that they include proper social distancing and as much air filtration as practical. Although the recommendation does note that congregate settings can increase the risk of COVID transmission, it consists mostly of advice for how to open congregate cooling centers as safely as possible, and is not blanket recommendation against providing temporary shelter from dangerous weather conditions. 

Amanda Richer, an advocate for people experiencing homelessness who was homeless until fairly recently herself, said Thursday that she contacted the city’s Human Services Department a month ago about the need to prepare for wildfires and hot weather in addition to the COVID crisis. She said she was glad that the city and county were taking action to help some people experiencing homelessness escape the smoke. But, she added, “I don’t know where the disconnect in foresight is happening. It’s an emergency that should have been dealt with when it started being an emergency.”

According to the CDC, wildfire smoke inhalation can damage lungs and make people more vulnerable to respiratory diseases such as COVID; it can also increase the risk of heart problems, cause asthma attacks, and other health problems. This is especially true of groups that have preexisting health conditions, which are common among unsheltered people, particularly those who are chronically homeless.

“This smoke will damage these unhoused [people’s] lungs so badly that it will make them so much more vulnerable to COVID,” Richer said. “I don’t know if we are as a city being honest about the level of need and what is happening. … If all of our smoke shelters are being used, then we need to know where else to put people, because we can’t let people die.”

I asked the city and county officials at the press conference why, if the advice for housed people is to stay indoors even though most people lack high-tech air filtration systems, the city and county aren’t opening temporary spaces so that more people experiencing homelessness can at least get out of the smoke. Durkan responded, “We have around 5,000 people living outdoors in the region. …  I’m not sure if you’re suggesting that we have a plan to bring 5,000 people in immediately for the next few days.” (I wasn’t.) “We don’t logistically currently have that ability, but we are trying to reach those people that are most vulnerable [and] to open up these facilities that are very large to get the people who are most vulnerable inside.”

Dr. Jeff Duchin, the public health officer for King County, said that if the air continues to worsen, the county will reassess and could recommend opening additional buildings. “We’re trying to balance two situations which are fraught with uncertainty [COVID-19 and wildfire smoke], but as the air quality decreases, the motivation to bring people indoors and the need to do that will increase.”

Despite Ongoing Heat and Smoke, Seattle Has No Plan for Cooling Centers or Smoke Shelters for Homeless

Wildfire smoke along I-5 near Corvallis, Oregon, September 8

By Erica C. Barnett

The city of Seattle has no current plans to open “smoke shelters” to protect people experiencing homelessness from the dangerous respiratory effects of smoke rolling in from wildfires in Eastern Washington, Oregon, and California, despite visibly smoky air that has burned eyes and left ashy residue on windowsills across Seattle for the past several days. Mayor Jenny Durkan has also declined to open cooling centers in recent weeks, on the grounds that the risk of COVID-19 outweighs the risk of dehydration, heat exhaustion or stroke, and hygiene-related illnesses that can crop up in hot weather.

On Monday, Durkan tweeted that Seattle residents should minimize their exposure to wildfire smoke by closing all their windows and doors, turning their central air conditioning to recirculating mode, and turning off fans that vent outside. The mayor’s tips included no suggestions for people living outdoors, who don’t have doors to close, much less air conditioning or even fans to mitigate temperatures that have soared into the 90s this summer, and are supposed to hit 91 this afternoon.

According to King County Public Health, the air over the last several days has fluctuated between “unhealthy for everyone” and “unhealthy for sensitive groups”—those with underlying conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, respiratory ailments, or a history of strokes. In previous years, the city has opened “smoke shelters” so that people living outdoors, who are more likely than the general population to have underlying conditions that make them sensitive to smoke inhalation, can escape the smoke and heat. Last year, for example, Durkan touted the installation of new HVAC systems at five city buildings used as shelters on smoky days, calling it a timely response to the “new normal” of climate change.

This year, however, the city has done nothing to provide such spaces. According to mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower, the city has been “reviewing its response options for potential wildfire smoke to ensure that they align with social distancing requirements.” Currently, Hightower adds, many of the buildings that the city would use as smoke shelters (or cooling centers, for that matter) are either closed (libraries, most community centers) or already being repurposed as shelters or day care facilities (Fisher Pavilion, Exhibition Hall). Of course, the city has the authority to open buildings that are currently closed, including the senior centers, community centers, libraries, and other city buildings that are ordinarily used as temporary smoke shelters and cooling centers.

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The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you.

If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

Hightower said the city is taking its cues from Seattle/King County Public Health about when and whether to open temporary spaces for people living outdoors to get out of the heat and smoke. “We are updating our operational plans should Public Health – Seattle & King County recommend that the benefits of establishing congregate healthy air centers outweigh the health risks of COVID-19 based on the severity of the forecast.” If that happens, Hightower said, the city has “access to a range of facilities if wildfire smoke conditions significantly deteriorated and became a greater health risk to vulnerable individuals’—for example, if the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency issued “a prolonged red zone air quality forecast that went on for days/weeks and Public Health’s concerns for air quality outweighs the concern for the spread of COVID-19 which can be deadly to those at high risk.”

Homeless advocates, and at least one city council member, aren’t buying it. Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said the city should have risen to the challenge of providing safe, socially distanced shelter months ago, before wildfires and extreme heat added new urgency to the crisis. “The public health threats to people who are homeless of being exposed to extreme weather conditions are real,” she said, “and the threats to people being indoors with a highly transmissible disease are real. That doesn’t mean that local government gets a pass on figuring out how to help reduce risk and protect people.”

Homeless advocates have been arguing since the beginning of the pandemic that the best way to keep people experiencing homelessness from infecting each other is to put them in individual rooms, a solution the Durkan administration has steadfastly resisted. Even failing that, Eisinger said the city needs to figure out a way to deal with extreme weather conditions before this winter, when flu season and cold, rainy weather will collide with the ongoing epidemic, making it even more

critical to get people into warm, hygienic spaces. “The Centers for Disease Control and our local and state public health departments are quite clear that individual rooms that allow people to be protected from exposure, as well as from the risk of contracting COVID-19 are advisable, effective, and should be increased,” Eisinger said.

On Wednesday, council member Teresa Mosqueda said she had just returned from a short walk and was coughing despite wearing an N95 mask, which filters out most smoke particulates. “I can’t imagine sleeping unsheltered” in the smoke, she said.

“We have hotels [and] motels sitting unoccupied with AC and individual rooms; we have tiny houses that are ready to be stood up,” Mosqueda said. “There is no excuse to not house more folks and use de-intensified shelter options to prevent people from getting sick from this smoke.”

In Narrow Vote, County Council Ousts Police Accountability Director

 

By Paul Kiefer, with reporting by Erica C. Barnett

On Tuesday afternoon, the Metropolitan King County Council voted by a narrow margin against renewing Office of Law Enforcement Oversight Director Deborah Jacobs’ contract, which expired in June. (Jacobs was serving as de-facto head for the past two months). In her place, the council appointed OLEO’s current Deputy Director, Adrienne Wat, to serve as interim director.

Council Chair Claudia Balducci first proposed not renewing Jacobs’ contract two weeks ago. Her surprise announcement came a month after the council received the findings of an independent investigation into allegations by OLEO staff that Jacobs made a series of inappropriate or discriminatory remarks to them during her four-year term as director. For example, one staffer complained that Jacobs had commented (sarcastically, she says) that she could only see a white man as deputy director of OLEO, and, on a separate occasion, that she could not invite OLEO staff to a Roe v. Wade celebration because it was for women only.

OLEO community engagement manager Jenna Franklin praised Jacobs for hiring “people who are different and more diverse than her—that’s what a leader like that should do.” But she notes that “the ability to work with sensitivity in collaboration with diverse staff and communities is essential for public servants.” King County’s Equity and Social Justice rules state that “elected leaders and directors are ultimately responsible for ESJ,” Franklin notes, “including in regard to workplace and workforce.”

“In this case, she has acknowledged missteps and that impacts to staff did occur.  Missteps shouldn’t be the sum total of a person, a system, or those [they] represent.”

“There’s a narrative that I push the boundaries and that’s probably true, because I have tried to fulfill the public’s expectation for strong oversight, and I’ve faced endless roadblocks in doing so. They have used that narrative as a basis to try to discredit my work.”—Deborah Jacobs

In today’s hearing, Balducci explained that her push to not reappoint Jacobs was driven by  concerns about the OLEO work environment; an investigation into Jacobs substantiated five of the eight complaints against her. One of those sustained complaints stemmed from an incident in which Jacobs apparently commented that an employee’s weight and race made it easier for him to build rapport with sheriff’s deputies; the man, who has struggled with weight-related self-image problems, said he felt uncomfortable speaking to Jacobs directly about her comment.

“We are supposed to be about accountability and equity and fairness,” Balducci said in an interview before the vote. “I don’t think we really can accept less than achieving accountability and equity and fairness in our own workplace. If we are going to be about investigating and calling out a lack of equity in one place it makes [the need to have equity and accountability within OLEO] even more compelling.”

The vote not to reappoint Jacobs was closer than the August 18 vote of the council’s Employment and Administrative Committee to recommend removing Jacobs. (That committee includes all nine members of the council.) In the earlier vote, the council voted 7-2 to not reappoint Jacobs; on Tuesday, the full council reached the same conclusion with a 5-4 vote. Council members Dave Upthegrove and Rod Dembowski voted against the ouster both times; council members Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Jim McDermott changed votes.

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The most vocal opposition to Jacobs’ ouster on Tuesday came from Dembowski and Upthegrove, Both expressed concern that Balducci and other colleagues are being too harsh and that replacing her is not in the best interest of police accountability in the county. “The assets that I’ve seen [Jacobs] bring to this office,” Upthegrove said, “particularly as it pertains to community engagement and the tenacity with which she’s represented our interests, and what we’ve seen to be a passionate commitment to racial and gender equity, leads me to believe that the mistakes she made aren’t enough to lead me to this conclusion.” He also said removing Jacobs was an example of a double standard: “I can’t help but thing of members of law enforcement who continue to have their jobs today in the face of mistakes and judgement calls that—in my mind—are much more serious.”

Dembowski echoed those concerns, adding that he saw the council’s approach to replacing Jacobs as legally dubious. “I’ve been very troubled by this process,” he said during the council meeting. “It’s generated a $2 million claim,” in the form of a tort Jacobs filed in Pierce County two weeks ago alleging sex and gender discrimination by the county. “I think that we mixed discipline from the report with reappointment, and I think they should have been kept separate.”

Local police accountability watchdogs also expressed their concerns about the council’s move to oust Jacobs, whom they see as a brave and determined force for greater oversight of the King County Sheriff’s Office. Annalesa Thomas, a co-founder of the police accountability group Next Steps Washington and the mother of Leonard Thomas (killed in 2013 by Fife Police while unarmed and holding his son) appeared during Tuesday’s public comment period to voice her support for Jacobs; in an interview before the vote, Thomas said Jacobs “has brought to the forefront many of the issues that family members [of police shooting victims] raise. She didn’t go along to get along.”

“We are supposed to be about accountability and equity and fairness. I don’t think we really can accept less than achieving accountability and equity and fairness in our own workplace.”—King County Council member Claudia Balducci

For her part, Jacobs acknowledges that she was sometimes reckless in her comments to coworkers and hoped for a chance to make amends, but she is also convinced that the council’s decision was driven by politics and a lack of support for accountability itself. “It’s been an unjust process and I wouldn’t wish this treatment on anyone else,” she said in an interview. “It’s going to be really hard for anyone to survive because it’s a hostile climate, there is little support, and mistakes are seized upon.”

Jacobs also says her record as a fierce defender of accountability—and the resulting tensions between her and the KCSO—has left her constantly defending herself since she took the position in 2016. “They [KCSO] don’t trust me,” she explained. “There’s a narrative that I push the boundaries and that’s probably true, because I have tried to fulfill the public’s expectation for strong oversight, and I’ve faced endless roadblocks in doing so. They have used that narrative as a basis to try to discredit my work.”

Balducci denied that her proposal against Jacobs was intended to assuage the KCSO. “I cannot state in strong enough terms how important it is to me that we have a strong, courageous, diligent leader of our Office of Law Enforcement Oversight. Those things are not bad. Those are good things,” she said. “There is a kind of inherent tension and even conflict that can exist in the role itself, and you need somebody who isn’t intimidated by that and who need to go forward with what needs to be done.” Continue reading “In Narrow Vote, County Council Ousts Police Accountability Director”

The City and County Keep Lists of Cops with Credibility Issues. Many of Them Remain on Patrol.

Image from SPD Detective Franklin Poblocki’s body camera

By Paul Kiefer

In early April, a pair of Seattle Police lieutenants from the West Precinct spotted a man rolling a bike and a garbage can down Main Street in the International District. Large coils of copper wire hung off the bike’s handlebars, and the garbage can was packed with more of the same wire. In their report, the officers noted that the wire appeared to have been torn or quickly cut; the officers concluded that the man had probably stolen it from a nearby construction site. When they stopped the man to question him, he quickly admitted that he had taken the wire from a site near Yesler Terrace. The officers then booked the man into the King County Jail.

By most standards, the arrest was unremarkable. But if one of the officers who arrested the man had been called to testify, her name—Lora Alcantara—would have triggered an alert that could have prompted prosecutors to drop the case.

Alcantara is one of 24 SPD officers on the so-called “Brady Lists” kept by the King County Prosecutor and the City Attorney’s Office. The lists, named after a 1963 US Supreme Court ruling called Brady v. Maryland that required prosecutors to present any evidence that might benefit the defendant, are formally known as Potential Impeachable Disclosure (PID) lists. They include the names of officers with sustained findings of dishonesty, evidence of racial bias, or criminal charges or convictions.

Alcantara was in added to the KCPO’s PID list in 2016 after a Seattle Office of Police Accountability Investigation found her guilty of misconduct for calling a Black driver a “fucking Negro” during a car chase in 2013. [UPDATE] A subsequent OPA investigation found that Alcantara also lied about her interaction with a KIRO-TV news crew she encountered during the chase when debriefing the incident with her supervisor, leaving her with an additional mark on her record for dishonesty. Former police chief Kathleen O’Toole suspended Alcantara for five days without pay for violating the SPD manual’s “prohibitions concerning derogatory language.” 

 

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In practice, those lists limit the ability of officers with a record of misconduct to testify. If a listed officer is the sole witness in a case, both prosecutors’ offices say they are far less likely to file charges, limiting the officers’ abilities to work alone. However, though listed officers are often unable to give testimony—a key responsibility of law enforcement officers, especially those working in patrol operations—salary and assignment data show that the department has continued to give the 24 officers annual raises and has left the vast majority in patrol positions. 

When a prosecutor from either office finds that an officer they subpoenaed to testify in a case is on their Brady list, their offices have to disclose that information (and additional details about the officer’s misconduct record) to either the defense attorney (if the officers are on the list because of a record of dishonesty) or the trial judge. Defense attorneys can use this information to impeach an officer’s testimony, and being on a Brady list “can be a factor in whether a prosecutor chooses to file charges,” Dan Nolte, the communications director for the city attorney’s office, said. “If a Brady List officer is on a case and no other officers can corroborate their account, we’re likely to seek additional evidence confirming the situation before choosing to file.”

Over the past decade, the lists have grown to include dozens of SPD officers, and they continue to grow.

Over the past decade, the lists have grown to include dozens of SPD officers, and they continue to grow. Most of the 75 SPD officers on the lists are no longer employed by the department: some, like 31-year SPD officer Ernest Hall (for whom the OPA found a lengthy record of dishonesty), the department fired outright; others, like former officer Alex Chapackdee (arrested in 2017 on federal drug trafficking and money laundering charges) resigned in lieu of termination; and others, like former Detective Ron Smith (charged for shooting a rival biker gang member at a South Dakota bar in 2008), retired from the department.

OPA Director Andrew Myerberg says it’s rare for officers who land on the lists to keep their jobs. Still, it is common enough that of the 75 SPD officers who prosecutors have added to their lists over the past 15 years, nearly a third remain employed by the department.

Four active SPD officers are on both lists because of dishonesty. One—Officer Christopher Garrett—landed on the KCPO list 15 years ago after lying about his availability to testify in a drug trial; he was among the first officers to be added to the list. Another, Detective Franklin Poblocki, somewhat famously spent forty minutes waiting outside a Black man’s workplace in the Central District in a rolling chair after the two exchanged barbs over a towed car in 2018. Poblocki told a passerby that he was waiting for an apology but claimed to his coworkers that he had merely been engaged in “community-oriented policing stuff.” In the wake of the incident, the OPA concluded that Poblocki had lied to investigators and now-outgoing SPD Chief Carmen Best demoted him from sergeant to detective for inappropriate behavior that “degraded” the department’s community policing efforts.

At least two current SPD officers on the CAO’s list have criminal charges on their records: Officer Caleb Howard was charged with misdemeanor assault in 2018 after punching a coworker and strangling his 17-year-old son at a backyard barbecue in 2018; 33-year SPD veteran (and one-time officer of the year) Officer Felton Miles was charged with felony harassment after bursting through the door of his ex-wife’s home and threatening to kill her and her boyfriend in 2007. SPD fired Miles, but a Seattle judicial board overturned Miles’ firing in 2008 and ordered the department to reinstate him.

This year, the salaries of all the officers on the lists add up to roughly $3.3 million, not including overtime.

Several on the list are fairly high-ranking. Captain Randal Woolery, for instance, was placed on the CAO’s list in 2019 after an undercover SPD prostitution sting caught him soliciting a sex worker in North Seattle (he has been charged for the incident but not convicted). Seven others on either list hold ranks of sergeant or higher, including Lieutenant Alcantara.

This year, the salaries of all the officers on the KCPO and CAO’s lists add up to roughly $3.3 million, not including overtime. Based on the city’s 2020 wage data, two of those officers—Captains James Dermody and Randal Woolery—will make over $200,000 this year before overtime. Others, like Lieutenant Alcantara, were promoted after the events that landed them on the Brady lists.

Just as notably, though their presence on the lists renders them vulnerable to impeachment as trial witnesses, SPD have left most of the officers on the lists to roles in patrol positions. As patrol officers, they are more likely to interact with the public and make arrests; therefore, the prosecutors are more likely to need their testimony when filing charges against those they arrest. Nolte says the city attorney’s office would rather turn to security camera footage or not file charges than have a case fail because the police witness appeared on their Brady List. KCPO Communications Director Casey McNerthey, however, noted that his office has not yet seen a case dismissed because an arresting officer was on their Brady list — after they disclose that information to the defense council, the court can adjust as necessary.

But that hasn’t stopped the listed officers from making stops and arrests. Detective Poblocki, for instance, has continued to make so-called “Terry Stops“—stopping someone based on an officer’s “reasonable suspicion” that the person is involved in criminal activity—for the past two years as part of the West Precinct’s burglary and theft squad, despite his dubious presence on the KCPO and CAO’s lists. In effect, the prosecutors (and police) have deemed Poblocki not credible enough to give testimony, but credible enough to conduct arrests, carry a gun, and earn a full salary.

King County Council Committee Recommends Replacing Law Enforcement Oversight Director

OLEO Staff - King County

By Paul Kiefer

On Tuesday, a majority of the Metropolitan King County Council’s Employment and Administration Committee (which includes all nine council members) voted not to extend the contract of Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) Director Deborah Jacobs, as well as to accept the findings of an independent investigation into allegations that Jacobs made a series of inappropriate or discriminatory comments to her staff over the course of her four years with the county.

Council chair Claudia Balducci announced that she would introduce the proposal ending Jacobs’ contract in a press release on Monday evening. In her statement, Balducci praised Jacobs’ work as OLEO director, writing that she “has worked diligently to fulfill OLEO’s mission to hold the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) accountable for providing fair and just police services.” However, Balducci added that based on the findings of an outside investigation into claims made against Jacobs by OLEO staff, the office would “benefit from new leadership.”

The council hired the law firm Ogden, Murphy and Wallace to conduct the investigation earlier this year after a number of employees accused her of making inappropriate comments. The investigating attorney, Karen Sutherland, concluded that Jacobs had engaged in conduct  “inconsistent” with council policies against harassment and discrimination in five instances, and found that three other complaints were unfounded or unsupported by evidence.

Sutherland added that she found no evidence of “criminal misconduct” by Jacobs.

The five complaints Sutherland found convincing included an incident in which Jacobs apparently dismissed an applicant for a public relations position as “just a white male” (hiring decisions based on race are illegal in Washington), and one in which she said she could only imagine a white man as OLEO deputy director.

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Two other claims were connected to non-work social events. In one case, Jacobs said she could not invite any of her employees to her annual women-only Roe v. Wade anniversary party so as not to exclude a male employee. In another, Jacobs said she would not invite her employees to a social event so as not to single out an employee who was single. In the fifth and final instance, Jacobs reportedly praised an employee for his “race and size,” claiming it helped him gain the trust of sheriff’s officers. That employee told Sutherland that he’s struggled with weight-related insecurity for much of his life, but added that he didn’t feel comfortable telling Jacobs that her comments had been hurtful.

In a response to the investigation she sent to council members in July, Jacobs acknowledged that she had “used some terms that are not appropriate even when used casually and with no ill intent,” adding that in response to the complaints, she has “actively sought to alter [her] language choices.”

However, Jacobs said some of the findings of the investigation took her comments out of context. For example, Jacobs wrote she made her comment that OLEO could only be headed by a white man “with a sense of irony and deep frustration.” As evidence, she pointed to the fact that she promoted Adrienne Wat, an Asian woman, to the position not long after she made the comment. Continue reading “King County Council Committee Recommends Replacing Law Enforcement Oversight Director”

Homelessness Report Highlights Inequities, Growth In Chronic Homelessness In King County

This story originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

Last year, when King County’s “point-in-time count” of the homeless population indicated a slight dip in the number of people counted in the shelters and on the streets, Mayor Jenny Durkan celebrated the news, crediting the city’s work adding shelter and expanding the Navigation Team, among other actions, for the apparent 5 percent decline in unsheltered homelessness. Three-quarters of that decline was attributed in the report itself to the redefinition of “shelter” to include tiny house village encampments, which moved a number of people from the “unsheltered” to the “sheltered” column even though their living situation stayed the same.

This year’s one-night count showed a slight increase in both sheltered and unsheltered homelessness throughout King County, with the biggest increases in Seattle and Southwest King County. The new total estimate of 11,751 people experiencing homelessness represents a five percent increase over last year. A separate survey, which had fewer participants than in previous years, provided demographic data and information about why people became homeless, information that the county’s “Count Us In” report extrapolates across the entire homeless population.

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Now for the caveats. Every point-in-time count is just that—a count of how many people volunteers were able to identify on a specific night in January, a time when the number of people seeking shelter is higher and when the number sleeping outdoors fluctuates widely based on the weather. The night of the count, January 24, was extraordinarily rainy, with 1.14 inches of rain compared to no rain the previous year. Probably as a consequence, the number of people found living in abandoned buildings increased dramatically, from 140 to 662; the report notes that “The combined totals (of abandoned building count and street/outside count) are notably similar across the years.

Additionally, the report says homeless encampments sweeps by the city of Seattle probably reduced the Seattle numbers by at least several dozen; the report notes the removal of “28 tents and structures” from one site and the disappearance of at least 50 people from another immediately before the count took place.

The number of people counted also depends, in part, on the number of people walking and driving around the county and counting them. This year, about half as many volunteers showed up for the count as did in 2019, and about 25 fewer guides with lived experience of homelessness. The report attributes this decline to the weather and a shooting downtown that occurred less than two days before the count.

Additionally, the report says homeless encampments sweeps by the city of Seattle probably reduced the Seattle numbers by at least several dozen; the report notes the removal of “28 tents and structures” from one site and the disappearance of at least 50 people from another immediately before the count took place.

Another factor that makes the January count an incomplete guide to current homeless numbers is the fact that it took place before the COVID-19 crisis, which created unprecedented unemployment throughout the region. Data from the county’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) shows a steady increase in the number of people seeking homeless services through the end of March, when 13,238 households (which can include multiple people) sought services, a 29 percent increase over January. Losing a job is the most common reason survey respondents gave for becoming homeless (16 percent); another 8 percent said they became homeless because they couldn’t afford their rent. 

“Without accurate data that tells the truth about the astonishingly high rates in the Native community, the narrative is inequitable.” — Colleen Echohawk, Chief Seattle Club

The county could not offer HMIS data after March, but the numbers are likely to increase substantially—especially after moratoriums expire. Leo Flor, the director of King County’s Department of Community and Human Services, said Wednesday that “rent-burdened” households—renters who struggle to pay rent from month to month—will be hit especially hard by both the economic downturn and the eventual termination of financial assistance that is currently helping them make ends meet.

“If that assistance were to cease” in the absence of replacement income, “we would see a lot of additional people moving from rent-burdened to homelessness.” In other words: If people who are living on cash or rent assistance (or not paying rent at all during the eviction moratorium) don’t find jobs by the time that income runs out, we’re going to see a lot more homeless people on our streets. This is supported by the fact that “losing a job” was the most common reason people reported becoming homeless, followed by alcohol or drug issues, mental health problems, and an inability to afford rent.

People sleeping outdoors or otherwise unsheltered increased in every part of King County except North and Southeast King County, with the largest percentage increases in Northeast King County (69 percent) and East King County (32 percent), followed by Seattle at 5 percent.

People who identified as Black made up 25 percent of people experiencing homelessness in the latest count, which uses numbers from a separate survey—this year, of 832 homeless adults and youth) to extrapolate demographic data across the entire homeless population. (The people conducting the one-night count do not approach people or note their apparent genders or races.) That’s a decline from last year’s number, 32 percent, but still extremely disproportionate in a county where Black people make up just 7 percent of the population.

The proportion of Native American/Alaska Native people experiencing homelessness, meanwhile, spiked from 10 to 15 percent of the people surveyed, and 32 percent of those experiencing chronic homelessness, a prevalence that’s 15 times higher than the number of Native people in the county. Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, attributed the increase to better data collection this year, including the fact that Native service providers have been increasingly involved in data collection. (Prior to last year, no Native organizations were involved in collecting data.)

“Chronic homelessness is tough on people’s health, it’s tough on people’s ability to maintain their relationships, and it certainly is hard on their ability to maintain their housing status.” — King County DCHS Director Leo Flor 

“Because of our efforts to collect more accurate data related to American Indians and Alaska Natives experiencing homelessness, we believe we are getting closer to truly understanding the scope of the work ahead,” Echohawk said in a statement. “Without accurate data that tells the truth about the astonishingly high rates in the Native community, the narrative is inequitable.”

King County’s survey also include a multi-race category, which dilutes the racial data.

This year’s report also shows dramatic increases in the number of families with children experiencing homelessness (from 2,451 to 3,743) and in the percentage of those individuals who were unsheltered (from 3 to 29 percent), along with an increase in the number of homeless individuals (70 percent of them women) fleeing domestic violence. The report attributes these upticks,  in part, to better data collection. But the number of women experiencing homelessness, both in general (41 percent) and in subcategories like youth (47 percent) and people living in vehicles (56 percent) suggests that the face of homelessness is increasingly female—a fact that doesn’t fit with the most common stereotypes about who becomes homeless and why. The report didn’t ask women and men separately why they became homeless, an oversight that makes it hard to extrapolate why women become homeless from this report.

The number of people who are chronically homeless (a group that is much more likely to be unsheltered than people who have been homeless for shorter periods) increased more than 52 percent this year, to 3,355, and the rate of reported psychiatric disorders also spiked sharply. (The term “chronically homeless” refers to a person who has been homeless for more than a year, or for more than four times in the last three years, and who suffers from a chronic physical or mental health condition, including serious mental illness or addiction or a physical disability.)

Flor, the DCHS director, noted Wednesday that the two trends are closely related. As the number of people experiencing long-term homelessness increases, he said, “we would expect that the number of psychiatric conditions would increase as well. Chronic homelessness is tough on people’s health, it’s tough on people’s ability to maintain their relationships, and it certainly is hard on their ability to maintain their housing status.”

In her statement about this year’s results, Mayor Durkan emphasized the county’s move to a regional approach to homelessness rather than one centered on City of Seattle resources. “While many individuals[‘] last stable home was not in the City of Seattle, our city continues to serve the most vulnerable in our region,” Durkan said. “Our regional homelessness investments must include an immediate and direct response to any crisis of housing stability, connecting people with the services they need, in their community wherever they are across the county.”

After the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness ended in 2015 (a year that, like previous years and all the ones since, ended with more people experiencing homelessness than ever), cities, counties, and service providers should be adopted the mantra that homelessness should be “brief, one-time, and rare.” This year, not only did the rate of chronic, long-terms homelessness increase, so did the percentage of survey respondents who said they had been homeless for one year or more.

Seattle has tried focusing on “rapid rehousing” with short-term vouchers, pivoting to heavy investments in emergency shelter, and now joining forces with the county and suburban cities to try to agree on a single regional solution to homelessness. Perhaps next year’s count will begin to reveal whether this latest shift will actually yield results.